By Mike McCullough, Sportsnet Magazine
There’s something I love about the people who jump aboard the Vancouver Canucks bandwagon around this time of year: no memory.
They mostly know winning, and are astonished when it doesn’t happen. But there are Canucks fans, and I’m one, who go back longer than that. The recall of far worse times makes us all the more delighted by the team’s success. But it also makes us feel — nay, know — that Lord Stanley’s Cup will never be paraded to Lord Stanley’s Park. You know, the Curse.
After last June’s game-seven collapse at the hands of the Boston Bruins, local blogger Matt Lee expressed the feelings of many by quoting a line from Friday Night Lights: “You ever feel cursed, Coach? Like no matter what, inside your heart you know you’re going to lose, like something’s hanging over you? I feel like that all the time. Even when things are going good. When we’re winning, it’s there. When we’re losing, it’s there. It follows me like a witch.”
Long-time devotees of the Canucks know that feeling. Notwithstanding the team’s latter-day winning ways, it’s part of the franchise’s culture. Ever wonder about fans whose talisman is the white towel of surrender? Though few participants would even remember first-hand the origins of that tradition, the post-final riots of 1994 and 2011 felt like something out of classical mythology, like rebellions against fate.
Now, on the eve of the 2012 playoffs, the fans are getting squirrelly once again about phenomena not easily explained: Daniel Sedin’s late-season concussion, the mysterious trading away of Cody Hodgson and Roberto Luongo’s bipolar performances in net. But then West Coast fans have their reasons for feeling cursed. Good reasons.
Other curses tend to be of the never-again kind, cast on teams at their moment of glory. This NHL franchise seemed born under a bad sign. Granted entry to the league in 1970 alongside the Buffalo Sabres, the Canucks were guaranteed one of the top two picks in that year’s amateur draft. The prize was future hall-of-famer Gilbert Perreault. A makeshift roulette wheel was set up to determine a winner: numbers 1–10 meant Vancouver; 11–20, Buffalo.
League president Clarence Campbell spun the wheel. When it stopped, he announced that the number was one; Vancouver had won. The Canucks’ table jumped up and cheered. “Then, calmly, (GM and coach) Punch Imlach stood up at the Buffalo table and said, ‘Mr. Campbell, will you check that? I think it’s on 11,’” recalls retired Canucks play-by-play announcer Jim Robson, who attended the draft. Upon closer inspection, the wheel had stopped on 11. This time, the Buffalo table erupted.
The Canucks would have to make do with No. 2 pick Dale Tallon, a pretty good defenceman but not the franchise player that Perreault would become. The might-have-beens got further under Vancouver fans’ skin when Perreault was named rookie of the year the next season and took the Sabres to the Stanley Cup final five years later.
By then the Canuckleheads fans’ bad kismet was taking on a pattern. Phil Esposito gave them the evil eye at the Pacific Coliseum when they booed Team Canada during a losing effort in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets. Then Minnesota-based team owner Tom Scallen was convicted and imprisoned in 1974 over transfers of money between the hockey operations and his Ice Capades empire, whereupon ownership fell almost by default to local broadcasting tycoon Frank Griffiths. The next year, the Canucks lost their first playoff series to Montreal’s Flying Frenchmen on a puck deflected in off defender Dennis Kearns’ skate. The Habs barely needed to take to the ice, fans scoffed.
The on-ice performance in the ’70s and ’80s was a dance between brief spells of misplaced hope and a more habitual crushing disappointment. Oughta-be stars brought in by trade or from Europe saw their careers cut short by illness or injury. If you could sum up the Canucks’ draft record in a picture, it was the image of first-round pick J.J. Daigneault posing with management on crutches at the 1984 draft. The only truly inspired pick over this period was bruising local boy Cam Neely. But when he wasn’t producing under cerebral coach Tom Watt, he was traded to Boston for a proven centre, Barry Pederson. When Neely broke out in Boston and cancer in Pederson’s arm ended his career, Canucks fans were reminded once more that the fix was in.
The return of GM Pat Quinn, one of the original 1970 Canucks, in 1987 is remembered as a turning point. By the early 1990s, fans had reason to believe things were finally going their way. The team survived a procedural challenge by the New York Rangers to the drafting of future 60-goal man Pavel Bure. The Canucks battled the Rangers all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in 1994. Then lightning struck again, it seemed. Down by a goal in the third period, the Canucks had a breakaway stopped as if the puck were guided by unseen forces. Then-owner Arthur Griffiths was at the opposite end of the rink when Nathan Lafayette raced into enemy territory. “I couldn’t see it because my eyes weren’t that good, 200 feet away,” he says, “but I heard the puck go off the post. It still rings in my ears.”
Cruel fate wasn’t done. A labour dispute would see to it that the team — a genuine contender, unlike the Cinderella Stanley Cup finalists of 1982 — would not get a second chance. “The lockout the next year broke the team’s stride, the fans’ expectations,” says Griffiths. “Sports is timing and momentum.”
And, some would say, luck — good and bad. After a few years of flailing, owner John McCaw brought in the team’s nemesis of ’94, ex-Rangers captain Mark Messier. Beloved captain Trevor Linden lost the “C” to the newcomer. To this day, teammates don’t blame Messier or McCaw for the slide that followed. The fans? They know better. It was merely destiny.
Just when it seemed that the Canucks had returned to their natural habitat at the bottom of the standings, Quinn protege Brian Burke once again made them a contender around the turn of the millennium. Still, inexplicable things kept the team from reaching its potential. Todd Bertuzzi’s infamous hit on Steve Moore in 2004 took a championship-calibre team off its game. There was another lockout, a full season this time. Then defenceman Luc Bourdon died in a motorcycle accident during the 2009 off-season after a standout rookie campaign.
When Bertuzzi was traded to Florida for Luongo, some fans were lulled into thinking the Curse had lifted; the offensively-gifted team at last had a superstar netminder. But when the Canucks’ chance to win the Cup finally came in 2011, the black cloud reappeared over Luongo’s goal crease — most evident when he irretrievably melted down in the final against the Bruins. And who would be there celebrating in Boston’s box but wayward son Cam Neely.
How short will Luongo’s leash be this post-season? (SN Magazine)
Talk of the occult resumed. Lotusland columnist Lyn Cockburn suggested forcibly lifting the Curse the way the ancient Greeks and Romans did: with a good old-fashioned human sacrifice. She even volunteered left winger Raffi Torres. Fortunately for him he was an unrestricted free agent and signed with Phoenix soon after. “We’re so used to not winning we have this self-deprecating humour about it,” says Kent Basky of Victoria, a blogger on Nucks Misconduct. Lee, now 23, was all of six when he first watched the Canucks during their ’94 run. He says the Curse mentality was passed down from his father and grandfather.
When commentators talk about Vancouver’s jittery fan base, so quick to lose faith after so much as a spell of .500 hockey this past March, they need to know how deeply engrained the voodoo is. Karin Larsen, co-host of CBC’s Seeking Stanley, says she still takes flak for the name of the local post-game show. “Just uttering that phrase makes some people uneasy,” she says. What the fans need to get into their heads, however, is there ain’t no such thing as a curse, not here and now, anyway. And it shouldn’t take Henrik Sedin hoisting the silverware to prove it.
For one thing, unlike in 1982 and 1994, the Canucks are, a year later, back in contention — with a tougher, more-experienced lineup. Secondly, sports curses are made to be broken. The Canucks’ Game 7 loss in ’94 dispelled the Rangers’ own “Curse of ’40.” The Boston Red Sox broke the granddaddy of sports spells, the 86-year Curse of the Bambino, in 2004, whereupon the sports gods seemed compelled to overcompensate, lavishing on Boston a cascade of championships right up to the 2011 Stanley Cup.
Over four decades and counting, the Canucks have shown continuous improvement, which is unique in the NHL. From just one winning season and one trip past the first round of the playoffs in all of the 1970s and ’80s, they enjoyed four winning seasons and six post-season appearances in the ’90s. In the past 10 years, they’ve posted just one losing season and missed the playoffs only twice. Plus, the hockey they’ve been playing in that stretch has been exciting. The franchise was 22-years-old before a player won a major award — Bure’s Calder Trophy in 1991–92. In the last two seasons alone, the Canucks have won four — two Art Rosses, a Hart and a Selke.
That they haven’t won a Stanley Cup yet owes something to simple math. The Maple Leafs, remember, won all their cups in a six-team league. No offence, Leafs Nation, but that’s easier than winning a Grey Cup. “Today, you have 30 teams and four rounds (of playoffs),” says Robson. And it’s not just Toronto that’s been skunked since expansion. Early expansion teams L.A., St. Louis and Washington have also failed to win the mug. Does that make them cursed, too?
But the pinprick that really punctures the Curse mythology is that, despite winning that fateful spin of the roulette wheel, the Sabres have never won a Cup. Perreault’s exploits notwithstanding (and Pat LaFontaine’s, and Dominik Hašek’s), they’ve only been to the final twice, to Vancouver’s three times. Not surprisingly, there is talk of a curse in Buffalo that extends to the NFL’s Bills and the NBA’s short-lived Braves. So if we’re cursed, Canucks fans, we’ve got company.
Besides, players and management, never here for a long time, don’t have the memory that diehard fans do. So as superstitious as some players and coaches can be, they don’t carry the weight of history around. Right before the final last June, GM Mike Gillis said, “Destiny? I don’t believe in it.” Perhaps he was channelling the coach from Friday Night Lights who upbraided his captain: “Fact of the matter is that our only curses are the ones self-imposed. We dig our own holes.”
THE GREAT WHITE NORTH’S HOPE: Seeking redemption
The Canucks need 16 wins to make up for the one that got away in 2011.
They’re not quite the same high-flying unit they were last year, but there are still bullets in the chamber. Winger David Booth has been a great addition to the second line with Ryan Kesler, and the Canucks have a couple of forwards — Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen — able to offer scoring depth.
GM Mike Gillis attempted to address the main knock on his club — a lack of toughness — by adding six-foot-three, 214-lb. Zack Kassian, 21. His grit better be a factor, because he sure doesn’t contribute anything offensively.
The Canucks lost the Cup last June largely because they were more banged up, Roberto Luongo was decisively outplayed by Tim Thomas and the vaunted Vancouver power play went 2-for-29. The Canucks must make people pay with the man advantage, so another power outage isn’t an option. As for Luongo, his trials and tribulations have been well documented. The bottom line is that Cory Schneider provides a safety net should Luongo falter — and you have to imagine the leash is shorter than ever. Either way, goaltending isn’t a weakness.
Since 2006, the Sedins’ combined playoff production isn’t quite at their point-per-game regular-season clip, but the notion that they lack the gumption to succeed in crunch time is ludicrous. However, if there was ever a time for the twins to find another gear, it’s on the heels of last year’s gutting disappointment.
VEGAS ODDS 6-1